Director Chuck Bonham on the response of the Department of Fish and Wildlife to the exceptional drought conditions
At the October meeting of the California Water Commission, Chuck Bonham, Director of the Calfiornia Department of Fish and Wildlife, updated Commission members on the activities of his Department. In his presentation, he spoke candidly about the difficult choices that the exceptional drought has demanded he and the Department make.
“My name is Chuck Bonham, and I have the greatest job in the world which is to be the Director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife,” he began. “I wanted to take a few minutes and share with the Commission, its members, some of the activities our Department has been engaged in for the last year, relative to drought.”
“It seems like a natural moment to look back over the last ten months and sort through lessons learned as we begin to prepare for what could be the fourth year of drought,” Mr. Bonham said. “I’m struggling with a new way to describe what’s still a very evocative set of facts and challenges that both the Department of Water Resources and the Department of Fish and Wildlife face.”
Mr. Bonham then presented a map of the U.S. titled “Rarity and Richness Hotspots of the U.S.” and noted that where there is more color and more circles, that means there is more biodiversity. “Biodiversity means richness of life, and in California, we actually have more species than any other state in the union, as well as the highest number of endemic species, which means those that are only found within the borders of this state,” he said. “And that’s a reflection on just an amazing mash-up of geology and geography and climatology.”
The Department’s mission is to manage this biodiversity in perpetuity, both for its ecological value as well as its use and enjoyment by Californians, he said. “At our Department, we view ourselves as stewards of this biodiversity, which I translate as a duty and ethic to pass on the resources in no worse shape – and hopefully better shape – than we inherited from our predecessors. Sometimes life at the Department can feel like that fish stuck between these two birds of prey where we’re being pulled in opposite directions, and my sense is that’s an experience you may share in your respective capacities where you’re stuck between competing interests and difficult decisions about a scarce resource. The fish in the middle is a metaphor for the scarcity of water, and how we make decisions around this scarce resource in the middle of competing tensions.”
He then presented a slide showing the satellite images of the snowpack for 2013 and 2014. “Most of you know that as we were leaving 2013 and coming into 2014, we were actually in the middle of an unprecedented atmospheric event,” he said. “There was something called the ‘Ridiculously Resilient Ridge’, a phrase coined by an individual at Stanford University, parked offshore. It had been sitting there since December 2012 and eventually for about 13 months. It was actually 2000 miles long and 4 miles high, and it shunted any appreciable precipitation north. … The takeaway here is white is good, less white is bad, so this slideshot of 2014 is what your Department, what you face in your professional and personal capacities, what Californians face, and what our Department faced when we went into this calendar year.”
Mr. Bonham said that the drought has driven a series of first time events, and he gave some examples.
At the end of January, the Department went to the Fish and Game Commission and asked for certain waters in the state to be closed for fishing. “We were already seeing impacts from drought on natural resources and the angling community stepped up and said they would be willing to dial back the fishing to reduce that external pressure on stocks,” he said. “We’d never done that before, so we did that on January 29.”
On January 30, Director Cowin of the Department of Water Resources along with representatives of the administration, state and federal, announced a zero allocation for the State Water Project. “First time in the 54 year history of the State Water Project,” he said. “Never done that before.”
He then presented a slide with pictures of Lake Oroville in the summer of 2011 compared to the summer of 2014. “Oroville’s our biggest reservoir; the Feather is a really big river,” he said. “That’s stunning, and I’m not sure all of the state appreciates what is occurring relative to drought until they see these kinds of before-after images, or the shot of the snowpack.”
Mr. Bonham said that Director Cowin’s made a hard decision about the zero allocation in January. Then in March and April, there were a few small rain events. “All heck broke loose over how allocation of that very scarce rainfall may be distributed,” he said. “I had not had a professional experience where the discussion was literally, what’s the amount of water that the state and federal projects should hold in their upstream reservoirs in the event it rains no more to meet bare public health and safety needs across the state? What’s the amount of water that needs to be held in the reservoirs to avoid the effect that’s called dead pool? What’s the amount of water?”
“At moment in time, we were really thinking we were going to have to bring the entirety of the winter run Chinook salmon run into captivity in the federal facility at the Livingston Fish Hatchery because we were predicting that water flows would be so low that the temperature levels would be automatically lethal,” he said.
Sometimes life at the Department can feel like that fish stuck between these two birds of prey where we’re being pulled in opposite directions … the fish in the middle is a metaphor for the scarcity of water, and how we make decisions around this scarce resource in the middle of competing tensions.
“We were worried about the important agricultural need for that water as people were making business decisions up and down the valley,” he said. “We were thinking about whether there would be water available for any of the public refuges, whether north or south of the Delta, and we were struggling with salt water intrusion.” He recalled that there were large king tides coming in pushing salt water into the Delta, and if the salt water made it back to the export pumps, it would contaminate drinking water for millions of people. “How do you make a decision at that moment, balancing between those? I think that conundrum in part shaped the zero percent allocation, which turned out to be at the end of the water year 5% due to those limited rains. I think it was about 200,000 acre-feet, which must be put in the context of easily a 4 million acre-feet demand-need being met by 200,000 acre-feet hydrologic ability.”
During this time, the Department partnered with the State Water Resources Control Board to expedite permitting for rural landowners north of San Francisco on coastal streams to create an opportunity for rural landowners to build storage ponds on their own properties and capture the few rain events that might occur in March and April, Mr. Bonham said. The permits allow them to construct a catchment basin, tank, or pond to catch the water, and in exchange for expediting these permits, the landowners agreed that their water right would not be increased. “We’re trying to capture it when it’s abundant and raining, and then we’ll have flexibility to not try to draw from the stream in the summer, and that will pull the some of the pressure off of that demand we were predicting would emerge in the summer. By expediting processing, we achieved both a supply flexibility and fish mitigation benefit in the same swoop. We found that to be pretty successful.”
In April, over 12 million smolts were trucked from the federal and state hatchery systems up and down the Sacramento River and the Feather River because the conditions in the river were so poor, the fish wouldn’t make it out of the hatchery. “So we readily mobilized and did a first time event,” he said. “Basically a mammoth trucking exercise to move those fish out to San Pablo Bay, but it’s not our preference. We prefer that the fish imprint on the waters there at the hatchery because they have this incredibly genetic uniqueness of coding to that home water, and in their migration, they just emerge as migrating back to their home water. If you don’t give them that imprinting opportunity, you actually produce an effect called straying, when the fish are on their return journey a couple of years later, but we made what is the best decision at that moment in time.”
In May, the Department joined with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to launch a voluntary drought initiative. “We pinpointed five watersheds: The Russian, the Scott River, the Shasta River, which are tributaries to the Klamath, and then Mill Creek, Deer Creek, and Antelope Creek, which are three tributaries to the upper Sacramento,” he said. “We reached those pinpoints by overlaying our respective staff’s ecological importance and biological recovery plan importance, and a hoped for prediction that there was a ground swell of willing landowners in those watersheds to help us deal with this problem.”
The streams were drying up rapidly, and federally and state listed fish species were becoming stranded, and landowners were coming to them with legitimate concerns, he said. [The landowners said:]”’Why would we want to work with you if working with you may mean you’re coming on our property about federally and state protected fish which may then embolden you in an enforcement context to come after us for things we’re in dispute with you about?’” Mr. Bonham said. “So we made a calculated decision. Given the circumstances at that time, our Department would figure out a way under the Governor’s second drought proclamation state of emergency instructing us to be creative … so we entered into written Memorandums of Understanding with any landowner that would voluntarily enroll. They would agree to allow us access on the property to move fish from dry areas to wet areas, so sometimes take them from a landowner’s property and move them to another enrolled landowner … and in exchange, we would use existing authorities under the fish and game code to give the landowner incidental take coverage for the time period that the drought proclamation state of emergency exists.”
“We’ve executed probably over 20 of these in these watersheds like the Scott and Shasta,” he said. “We’ve actually moved about 115,000 state protected coho salmon from dry parts of watersheds in the Scott and Shasta to wet parts. That’s the biggest rescue operation of coho salmon our Department’s ever done. Our first enrollee in this effort is Red Emerson, the largest landowner in the state of California, which for us was both a complicated discussion and a very rewarding discussion to find ways that landowners and our Department can make it through this drought.”
In June, the two hatcheries on the American River had to be evacuated because the inflows from the reservoir were too warm. “We had to put about 500,000 steelhead fingerlings in the river and give them the best shot there, which was better than the shot we predicted they would have if we held them in our hatcheries.”
He then presented a time series of the Drought Monitor for the past three years. “The takeaway here is that the dark red is worse, so dark red is exceptional drought, which as it turns out is worse than extreme drought, so more than 58% of California is in exceptional drought,” he said. “Every county is experiencing some form of drought. And the real kicker for me is between July 22 and July 29, how much the dark red blob grew so fast.” He noted that recent research out of Stanford suggesting the combination of the drought along with the incredibly hot weather is a new features here. “I’m not an expert in this field, but it seems to make sense to me logically as a reason why we made that kind of rapid in a week escalation of the presence of exceptional drought in those last two images.”
It’s one of the biggest productive waterfowl years ever for Canada and the upper Midwest with the Fish and Wildlife Service population models estimating about 49 million birds – the biggest number ever, Mr. Bonham said. “Not all of them are coming here, but we’re predicting getting the largest influx that birds that do come to the state probably ever, and they’ll flying over some of the driest habitat they’ve ever seen.”
Usually by mid-December, there’s about 300,000 acres of flooded ricelands, Mr. Bonham said. “Remember, we’ve only got about 5% of our historical bird wetland habitat wetland left in the valley, so one of our adopted mitigation measures to deal with the loss of 95% is flooding ricelands. We’re projecting that we’ll be lucky to get about 30,000 acres wet by the middle of December – 30,000 vs typically 300,000.” He noted that this produces a risk of avian botulism, which can occur when large populations are crowded into scarce habitat.
“I was just in Mt. Shasta last week where we operate and own the oldest continuously running fish hatchery west of the Mississippi,” he said. “In one of the back buildings, we have the last remnants of the McCloud River redband trout. We have about 1100 fish sitting in a closed system in a cordoned off part of our hatchery. Our staff went out to some of these tributaries in the upper McCloud and brought in these 1100 fish. That’s it. They are so dedicated to it they are choosing not to feed them the typical trough chow that you would feed to a hatchery fish so they’ve set up bug zappers across the property and they are collecting native bugs off the zappers to feed these really iconic rare native trout, and waiting hopefully until it rains and we can take them back out to the system.”
“This is putting our department in the spot of really having to make these kinds of questions,” he acknowledged. “Do you let nature play its course or do you bring something in? We don’t know in many cases. We’ve done more than 200 fish rescues around the state. It’s not just coho and salmon; sometimes it’s really unique species like the unarmored three spine stickleback in Southern California. About a month ago or less, we took what are the few remaining Western pond turtles from a particular reservoir that’s rapidly dropping and brought them in and we now have them in captivity.”
“This is affecting Californians, no question, at a people level as well. In your pocketbook, your livelihood. The point I am trying to make today is that we also not forget that it is having deep effects to fish and wildlife in this state.”
Mr. Bonham acknowledged that the drought is having difficult impacts for people as well, noting that the UC Davis study said about a $1.5B hit in the ag sector in the valley, 17,000 jobs lost, and 428,000 acres, as well as over 200,000 boxes of food distributed. “This is affecting Californians, no question, at a people level as well. In your pocketbook, your livelihood,” he said. “The point I am trying to make today is that we also not forget that it is having deep effects to fish and wildlife in this state.”
“In my judgment, the only way we made it through last year will be the only way we make it through next year,” he said. “We can’t in our leadership roles let this be about fish or farms, people or the environment. It’s going to hurt all of us. We have to insist on finding some balanced approach to spread the pain, share the risk and make it through together. That’s the nature of California from where I sit.”
“To leave you with an example, as we were thinking on our side in the regulator world that we were going to lose winter run or bring them into captivity, Glenn Colusa Irrigation District started a conversation first with NMFS, then the Bureau, the DWR, and us,” he said. “We were able to find the way to take the limited water in Shasta Reservoir which they are entitled to, and they were willing to take it later in the spring then they typically would, because we could then use the water to do double duty. We could run it over the redds which are the spawning incubator grounds for the salmon at a later moment in time when the temperature risk would be greater, and use that flush of water to keep control of the temperature. We could find a way to do double duty with the water, and that’s an example of both how we were able to do as well as we could in incredibly difficult in year, and how as a recipe, we’re going to make it through the next year, in my judgment.”
“So thanks for the opportunity, I hope you found that useful,” concluded Mr. Bonham. “I know you’ve got a lot of hard decisions in front of you, particularly if the water bond passes in November. We look forward to working with you.”
During the discussion period, Commissioner Del Bosque asked about the Delta operations and how the agencies will be working to capture stormwater this year.
“I think there were at least two experiences I had last year that may be transferable to this coming year that might allow the ability to capture rain if it comes and park it for storage,” Mr. Bonham replied. “The first experience I had last year was serious requests from different parts of the agricultural community north and south of the Delta to work with our federal counterparts under the controlling biops for the two water projects. While less than what the agricultural community wanted, our fish agencies were able to operate within the boundaries of the existing federal controlling law and take advantage of provisions in those biops which already establish drought contingency needs and then find flexibility in some of the provisions of these requirements, like running day averages and what’s called negative OMR indexes, and through trying to shape those otherwise operating constraints differently because we were operating under the drought contingency provisions of the federal law, I believe we were able to move more water than if we had just said, talk to the hand. I think we have to take that same approach and use it again this year, based on the experiences we have learned.”
“My second experience that I think should help this year is quite frankly we have one big pinch point around the Delta cross channel gates where we can have a confluence of migrating salmon and salinity risk,” Mr. Bonham continued. “We’re not doing 21st century work to readily understand presence and absence of these fish in the system. Largely we’re running boats with trawl nets. We should be moving towards a technology based approach, or even where it’s possible, where individual fish are, relative to an infrastructure pivot point like the Delta cross channel gates. Here’s where I’m going: If we can do better at marking and tracking these salmon, we’ll be able to judge better their closeness to an infrastructure facility, and use that cushion better to move water when we can, because we’ll understand when the risk of the fish to the gate is actually occurring. So what we’re trying to do is to transport into this coming year an early warning monitoring system which sits closer to the gates … to then make the gate open and close decision different than historically. Maybe we’re making that call when the fish are at the outer rim of the warning zone, that should free up flexibility, I’m hoping, on the supply front to capture some of that rain.”
“I will tell you many if not most are likely to criticize us for not doing enough to move water or doing too much that it’s causing environmental impact,” Mr. Bonham concluded.
For more information …
- Click here for the meeting agenda and materials.
- Click here for the webcast. This was agenda item 7.